Thursday, June 30, 2016
Love, loss and making history on the page. Thelma Adams tells the astonishing story of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, exotic, Jewish, and in love with the notorious Earp.
Adams is a novelist, movie critic, journalists a writer and leading New York-based film critic. Her debut novel Playdate (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books) came out in hardback January 2011, and paperback the following year. She is currently a freelance writer, most recently profiling Diane Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Clarkson for the New York Observer following three years covering the awards season for Yahoo! Movies. She was the film critic at Us Weekly for eleven years from 2000 to 2011, following six years at the New York Post. She has twice chaired the New York Film Critics Circle. She has written for The New York Times Magazine, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Huffington Post, Marie Claire, More, Interview Magazine, The New York Times, The international Herald Tribune, Cosmopolitan and Self. She has appeared on CNN, E!, NY1, NBC’s TheToday Show, CBS’s The Early Show, OMG! Insider, Fox News Channel, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, Bravo and VH1.
I'm thrilled to have Thelma here. Thank you, Thelma!
What could be more fascinating than a novel about Mrs. Wyatt Earp? What sparked you to write this extraordinary novel?
A novel can have many origin stories. I saw -- somewhere, somehow, nearly a decade ago -- that Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery (a word I can never spell) in Colma, California. I became obsessed. Was Earp Jewish? No. So why would the famed gunslinger, the hero (or villain) of the Gunfight at the OK Corral be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
The answer was Earp's wife of nearly fifty years: Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp called Josie by some, Sadie by her family. That was the beginning. Here was a knot that I needed to untangle, a question of Jewish identity that intrigued me.
First and foremost I wanted to know who the hell Josie was. Who was this beauty who turned up on a few pages in the many, many books that praised or reviled Wyatt in that 'the man, the myth, the legend' way. Josie did write a memoir that was edited by her descendants, I Married Wyatt Earp. It exists in multiple formats, some truer than others. But all versions are to a certain extent opaque, so far from contemporary memoirs that scratch down to the sticky embarrassing truth like Running with Scissors or Wild.
One goal of Mrs. Earp's memoir was always to restore Wyatt's good name, and by extension Josie's place beside him. Because, in the conventional history of gunfights and border skirmishes, law and order, Republican and Democrat, she only existed at his side on the frontier. And, then, she's often portrayed as a floozy, an actress or dancer, a beautiful opportunist, an exotic, a Jewess. As a historian out of Berkeley, I knew that there were many alternate histories, and the history of women and the poor are not marked by battles won or lost. A social historian has to dig deeper and read between the records in order to discover what these forgotten people were about. Once I heard about Josie, I wanted to dig deeper and discover what made her tick.
One thing I wanted to know was whether Josie really run away from home with dreams of becoming an actress with a travelling H.M.S. Pinafore troupe as her memoir says. Just that one detail seemed fantastic and marvelous because when I read the Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics for an operetta whose heroine is coincidentally named Josephine, I woke up. I realized that this was an era – the early 1880s, nearly two decades after the Civil War -- far more sophisticated culturally and socially than I'd credited it. Like that romantic heroine of the stage, mine ran into the arms of the man she loved – not the one her father (or mother) would have chosen. So this beautiful Jewish girl from a middle class Eastern European family had her own independent narrative running in her head, informed by the popular culture of her day. And she piqued my curiosity: what was it like to look out at this Wild West through Jewish eyes with Jewish values and traditions?
I knew that I could only get close to it through fiction, through imagining what impelled Josie from a good home in San Francisco to the dangers of Apaches and outlaws and scheming politicians in the Arizona territory, in Tombstone. The silver boomtown near the Mexican border couldn't be reached directly by train. It was both a land of opportunity and disaster.
In order to get myself into Josie's head, I channeled the feelings that I had, leaving home at 17 for Berkeley six hundred miles away, a place where I would determine my fate and, if not write poetry then at least live poetically. I had passion and so did Josie – and that's where we connected in the beginning. Josephine quickly discovered that she was no actress or dancer or singer – but she had a talent for drama and sweeping onto the center stage, which put her by Wyatt Earp and into his arms the very year that he fought and survived The Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Josie really came alive for me when I thought: what does it mean to be a Jewish woman in the wider world of events outside the home in a society where gentiles make the rules? How are those qualities that I see in myself – liveliness, intellect, a need for justice, a need to be heard and seen and find a true soul-mate, the weight of guilt and the past, a daddy's girl and a mother's misfortune – manifested in Josie, a woman born in the past but reborn in a novel?
Was writing this second novel different than writing your first?
Writing The Last Woman Standing was very different from Playdate, which began as a screenplay and evolved into a novel of contemporary manners – and which sold first. It contained very little research and channeled my experience of motherhood into a comic situation about a stay-at-home dad that was intended to be a cross between Shampoo and Mr. Mom. In some ways, it was chick lit with a male protagonist, which was not an easy sell. Meanwhile, I had written a very large chunk of thoroughly researched Mrs. Earp when my two children were still young on the hope that I could sell it on a proposal and continue my research and writing while raising my kids. I had shelves and shelves of primary and secondary sources.
To me, Josie's life seemed ripe for a novel – and this was before academic Ann Kirschner's acclaimed nonfiction book about Josephine, Lady at the O.K. Corral, had been published. I was then a film critic at Us Weekly, and without a commitment I could only manage two hundred pages. They were full of details – the size of a carriage and the number of horses pulling it, the style of women's clothing and cowboys' hats – but they lacked a strong storytelling impulse and the overall voice was uneven and, frankly, a little fruity. They also included the perspective of Wyatt Earp's sister-in-law, Allie Earp, a prairie pioneer with a bitter past. Her salty perspective spoke to me but it wasn't until I regained Josephine as a first-person narrator years later, and handed the story entirely to her that the book came alive. It was thanks to my agent Victoria Sanders, who read the initial pages when I pulled them out of a drawer and said in her fabulously blunt and truthful way: great idea, execution not so hot. "Get me three smoking chapters and a proposal and I can sell this," she said. I did -- and she did.
Those fresh chapters (nine rather than three) sacrificed the fascinating frontier story of Allie, but went back to the San Francisco house where Josephine was raised and fleshed out her mother (a key figure in shaping who Josephine was), her father and her siblings. In a completely fictional scene, I seated them at dinner beside the Shabbos candles on the Friday night that Josie departed for Tombstone. When Josie left home in 1880 engaged to the gentile John Harris Behan, who would become the sheriff of Tombstone and a fierce enemy of Wyatt, Josie's mother tore the collar of her best dress and sat shiva. Knowing that fraught relationship, and how earlier generations of my own family had reacted to children who intermarried, grounded the entire book. Josie lived her adventure in Tombstone one thousand miles southeast, but her mother's critical voice remained in her head along with her father's unconditional love.
What surprised you in your research? (And what did you have fun making up?)
I tried to lift the lid on the women in the story and also to weave in a bit of photographic history. The Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred in the vacant lot beside Fly's Photography Gallery, a bustling hub in town. And while C. S. Fly took the famous photo of the victims of that gunfight, it was his wife, Mollie (also a photographer) who ran the studio. She also managed the attached boarding house where the famed "Doc" Holliday lived. Central to the Fly's marriage – which was her second – was their mutual love of photography. All of this I got from research and is relatively straightforward – and could itself become the core of a book. Writing The Last Woman Standing I was always tumbling over tangential stories that seemed to cry out for their own novels.
There are wonderful photographs that have survived from this period – and one controversial risqué portrait of Josie (that has largely been discredited) wearing nothing more than a black net mourning veil. Rather than trying to determine its provenance and validity and enter a rabbit hole of a historical battle, I created a relationship between Mollie and Josie that unfolded in the studio. Their activities wouldn't have been recorded in the newspapers of the day, or the diaries of the local miners and politicians. What if Josie, who was by all accounts the most beautiful woman in Tombstone, became an artist's model for Mollie – as an alternative to selling her flesh as a prostitute? What if?
And as I researched, I discovered a startling connection to the history of art photography. This was the very time that photography was becoming cheaper, easier and more portable while meanwhile more respected as an art form. What I discovered, as I dug into Victorian erotic photography, was that one of my favorite painters, Thomas Eakins, was taking nude pictures at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in the decade prior to the 1880s. In fact, contemporary to my story, the Academy dismissed Eakins for teaching from life models to a co-ed classroom. When he lifted the loincloth on a male model for a female student to see, he crossed a line.
So, I was enjoying fascinating art history research when I discovered that the famed "Doc" Holliday had studied dentistry in Philadelphia while Eakins was at the Academy. I realized that, as an educated Southerner, Holliday would have likely visited the art studio and been exposed to the latest uses of the technology. He could easily have shared that knowledge with Mollie, his landlady. The historical record seemed to confirm that my fictional direction yielded an insight into Tombstone beyond the facts of gunfights and fringed jackets. There was a rich culture in Tombstone, and a daring one, because in many ways the adventurers that congregated there were unfettered by convention. Because the boomtown was only a few years old at this point, and infused with silver and those attempting to grasp it, there was no inherited wealth or established elders. And while male writers and filmmakers have focused on the women-as-wives-or-whores trope, I tried to figure out how this freedom from societal apron strings could manifest itself among the female figures I encountered.
This inspired, and seemed to validate, a sensual scene where a distraught Josie (who has just left Wyatt's bed before he rode off to lead a dangerous posse) poses for Mollie. I personally, even a century later, would be too ashamed of my bits and pieces to pose nude but here is Josie, her emotions having risen to her skin from recent sex and deep sorrow, getting photographed: "I felt my body relax. My shoulders dropped. I released my neck, stretched the fingers, and then let my free hand fall heavily where my legs intersected. I bent my knees and curved my feet around each other. I heard Mollie behind me, exposing film, changing glass plates, moving the camera closer, changing lenses. As she did this, I relaxed more deeply—not dozing, not forgetting my pain, but suspended in the camera’s eye."
In that climactic moment, I made the leap from research to imagination.
You have profiled megastars like George Clooney, Jessica Chastain and more, and you've covered films and festivals--and been on just about every major TV show there is. What was it like for you to settle in and get solitary writing a novel?
I have always done both – film criticism and poetry. I wrote my first film review for The Daily Cal and my first published poem (possibly my only) appeared in The Berkeley Poetry Review. I struggled for a long time to accept myself as a writer, which was my own fault. I now tell people: if you write, you are a writer. Do not seek accreditation or benediction from others. I received my MFA in fiction from Columbia in 1993, the same year as I got my first professional job as a critic at The New York Post. As a critic, over the years, and as a member and chairperson of the New York Film Critics Circle, I began to travel in celebrity-heavy circles just as celebrity culture really took off. Us Weekly hired me in 2000 when they went from a monthly to a magazine published once a week. And then it started: my immersion in celebrity culture.
I still get speechless in front of certain directors and behave like a cartoon character, although my friends who attend parties with me think I display an incredible sang froid in the presence of bold-faced names. I love talking to people and so doing profiles of Clooney, the most charming man on the planet, or Chastain, a searcher with a big heart, or others that have become friends, has been relatively easy. I don't, however, claim that my heart doesn't beat faster at times, or that I don't fumble when the luncheon conversation stumbles and I'm seated next to Robert DeNiro. My answer is to find the commonality – as I do with my historical characters. I try to bring an honest me – a writer, a mother, someone who has seen many films and read many books – and not approach celebrities slavishly. The truth is that I have something to offer, too, which is authenticity.
I have always been an extrovert who loves solitude. So I relish the long quiet of writing – thinking with my fingers. That mind-fingertip connection: there's nothing like it, the pleasure of rereading and tinkering. I consider writing books like being a marathon runner, I am happiest when I am in training, in a book, capturing that rhythm. I don't long for nightlife, then, or the company of famous people. I write. I read. I watch good TV (the French cop show Spiral or the Scandinavian The Bridge, for example) or movies from my collection. I sit with my cats. I talk to my children. I do yoga, which I find helpful in connecting bigger ideas within my work. I make Ethiopian chicken in the crockpot. Yes. I have a really big crockpot. And, then, when I go to a film festival, or interview someone like Mark Ruffalo or Diane Keaton, I'm coming from a real place. Remember: they are, too.
Which brings me to the question--what kind of writer are you? Do you map things out or do you like to follow the muse?
As a novelist, I have been struggling toward structure for a long time. My first unpublished novel, Girl Empire, was a picaresque. Playdate took place over four days. The Last Woman Standing had tent-pole events: the arrival in Tombstone; the date of the lynching of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce; The Gunfight at the OK Corral; Josie's exit after assassins attempted to kill Wyatt's brother Virgil and the town became too hot for the Earps and their friends. And, yet, there were big gaps in the narrative: she came to marry Johnny Behan, and she left attached to Wyatt Earp. When and how did that happen? What were those events that did not hit the historical record and how would I shape them to reveal my characters? I am not by nature someone who carefully plots but in this case, since I sold it from a proposal, I did have to map out how the chapters fit together for the table of contents I submitted. That was a good exercise for me. I found that even when I could not see the whole book in my head, I could often see three chapters ahead. And so I approached it as I would a writing schedule, concentrating on three chapters at a time, hitting the tent-pole events, aiming for the final chapter, which I knew before I even wrote my first one. I also follow the muse in that when characters talk, I listen. Sex scenes take on their own heat and you have to get out of the way and let your characters just do it. And I had this one minor character, a brothel owner named Madame Mustache, who just took over the pages she was on: she was a truth teller with ulterior motives and her voice took over whenever she appeared. I would say that whether you map out your chapters, or float forward in time, the muse will always find you. She will leave you, too. And that's when the marathon matters: just showing up at the computer is so much a part of the craft and the art of novel writing.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Right now I'm absolutely obsessed with my next novel, Kosher Nostra. Set in Brooklyn from 1902 to 1935, it is about the little sister of a button-man in Murder, Incorporated: the Jewish subcontractors for the mob that specialized in contract killing. It opens on the night of October 23, 1935 when the Williamsburg Boys Club killed Pretty Amberg and set the body aflame by the Brooklyn Navy Yard with their wives and girlfriends watching.
It is my first attempt at a novel of such scope – three decades in a single life. It's based on a real character that lacks a birth certificate or a notice in the newspaper: my grandmother Thelma Lorber. Her older brother was Abraham "Little Yiddel" Lorber, all of five foot two. These are little lives with big emotional arcs on the schleppy side of Boardwalk Empire. At 19, Uncle Abie stabbed a man for questioning his bravery on 14th Street in broad daylight. That made the newspapers – although it was something I learned in the archives and not from my family.
If I were E. L. Doctorow or William Kennedy, Uncle Abie would be my protagonist. But I want to figure out what it was like for Thelma (who I resemble) the wiseass little sister. She was born in 1902 into hard times and they just got harder. She depended for succor and protection on her beloved older brother Abie, only to see him get pulled into the mob and away from her. Like her sibling, she was a hedonist. But she existed in a stifling culture that didn't permit women to experiment out of wedlock. She married a man who suffered from a deep depression and died shortly after she gave birth to their only child, a son.
With Kosher Nostra, a Brooklyn novel, I want to reclaim this single mother and, like Josie, see the world through second-generation immigrant eyes. What did Thelma want from life – and what did she have to accept? How did she break the mold – and how high a price did she pay? Like Josie, she burned bright, but Thelma lacked the beauty that was Josie's ticket to a bigger stage. I want to write this novel to understand life for the family on the fringe of the Kosher Nostra, the juicy stories we don't share, the shondas, the shames, which define us in equal measure to our accomplishments.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
How am I like Josie – and how do I differ?
I put a lot of myself into Josie but in a number of key ways she is not like me. She is defined by her looks – she was by all accounts a great beauty. I'm not. And so she had the privileges that came with that, the attention from men wanted or not, the jealousies of women her looks inspired. And, because of that gift she didn't have to work at, she could lack empathy for others that struggled more than she did. Still, it was fun to slip on that skin, creamy, curvy and alive. When I needed a picture, I modeled her on the young Rachel Weisz, who has a face so breath-taking you can't look away – and you also almost can't hear what she's saying because her looks are so distracting. So, what is that like, to try to define yourself as an individual from the inside out, when people are constantly reacting to the wrapper?
I identify with Josie's desire to perform on the stage and then to discover that she lacked the required talent – she could not carry a tune and neither can I. She wanted to sing and entertain like her Gilbert & Sullivan namesake, but she couldn't. And she had debilitating stage fright. I don't but my daughter did when she was very young, so I remembered how she played the White Rabbit in an early elementary school production of Alice in Wonderland and had to be carried on the stage by her elbows when she had her solo, with older actors singing her part. I pinched that memory for Josie: the desire to be a star in the spotlight thwarted by her own fear of failure.
Growing up, what I had to set myself apart was intellect. I was a grind behind my thick glasses. I took the good student route to recognition but Josie and I share our desire to be recognized as individuals on the stage of our own lives, not as merely reflections of others more powerful or talented or famous.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
A family grows up with Autism. Liane Kupferberg Carter talks about KETCHUP IS MY FAVORITE VEGETABLE, writing, telling the truth, and so much more.
I was sitting in the crowded Jewish Book Council room when I saw another woman sitting alone, and I got up and introduced myself. We were soon talking like old friends, and by the time we all had to file into the auditorium, Liane Kupferberg Carter had agreed to come on my blog! I'm delighted. Her book Ketchup is my Favorite Vegetable is about one family's journey with an autistic child, the challenges, the difficulties, and the deep satisfactions.. Thank you so much, Liane.
What surprised you during the writing? What did you learn?
I learned that you cannot predict who you might offend -- or what will offend them!
For me, writing pins the chaos to the page. It gives order to my world. But writing memoir isn’t therapy. You don’t write memoir in order to get even or settle scores. You aren’t the victim of your story, nor are you the heroine.
Can you talk about the difference between writing memoir and fiction?
With memoir, as opposed to fiction, you are more bound by the “truth” – well, “a” truth, anyway. But it’s my truth, not necessarily anyone else’s.
The incomparable Dani Shapiro has said, “The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we? We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal.”
When you write memoir, you still use the techniques of fiction. The facts of my story provided the scaffolding for the book. But when it came to the writing, it was still all about voice, scene, dialogue, characters, pacing, and finding the narrative arc. When readers tell me the book reads like fiction, I take it as a compliment.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Besides the 2016 election and climate change?
I’m obsessed with the question, how do I create a meaningful life for my son for the next 60 years? I hold the same hopes for Mickey as I do for my older son Jonathan – the same ones all parents have: to have loving friends, good health, work that is meaningful, and to live the most satisfying, independent lives they can. The worry never ends. Who will take care of Mickey? Where will he live? Who will love him when we are gone?
I’m also obsessed with what to write next. I’ve been writing a lot of essays lately, so I’m thinking about shaping them into a book. I’m trying to figure out the through line, and how to create the connective tissue that will hold them together.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Hmm. How about, what are your boundaries when you write about your children?
I was clear from the get-go that I wouldn’t write anything that might embarrass or blame anyone in the family. I didn’t want to jeopardize my relationships with my kids. Again and again I checked in with myself: what were my motives in telling a particular incident? How would I have felt at the age of 15, reading something like that about myself? If the thought made me squirm, the details or scene didn’t belong. It was OK to out myself, but my kids were off limits.
I see Anne Lamott’s quote cited everywhere -- “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I think that’s a bit glib. Yes, you own what happened to you. But my kids didn’t ask for a mom who’s a writer.
Jessica Anya Blau talks about The Trouble With Lexie, Face Yoga, Prep School, being funny, writing and why she loves to dance (ha ha, made that up)
She's hilariously funny, enormously talented, and the kind of loving friend you want to kick back with all the time. I'm so thrilled to have Jessica Anya Blau here. The Wonder Bread Summer, Drinking Closer to Home, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (Don't you love the titles?) and now, Her latest--and greatest, The Trouble With Lexie. Want to see some of the raves?
"Blau has a steady nerve, as well as a wicked imagination . . . It takes you a little while to realize that what you're reading is top-notch comic writing because you're getting all the stuff you normally get in literary fiction as well: rites of passage, the complications of fractured families, the works."
"Jessica Anya Blau is one of the funniest writers--ever. No one captures the oddities, joys, and yes, the pain of modern life with such frankness, humor,
and sly-witted style." -ZZ Packer
And, you have to read this small excerpt, too:
The problem wasn't so much that Lexie had taken the
Klonopin. And it wasn't even really that she had stolen
them . . . the problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had
fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin.And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.
What is it about prep schools that somehow intensifies everything that possibly could happen in our lives?
Maybe it’s that when you take people out of the routines of home, family, parents and neighbors, they open up in a way they don’t usually. People reinvent themselves, recreate themselves and let loose when they’re away from home. You see this sort of group intensity/lunacy in adults when they go to conferences and writing colonies. They work hard, but they also play very hard—everything’s more charged up, your senses are sharper, you’re more engaged in what’s going on around you. Then, if you take that hyper-awareness, that openness, and couple it with hormones, exploration and close living quarters, there’s more drama than can fill a library of books.
Tell us about the writing of this particular book (I always think that each book is a whole different process.) What was different for you here?
Every book terrifies me. I can be overwhelmed with insecurities doubts, second-guesses. I have to continually talk myself into the work—remind myself that the process is what matters. I find great relief in transporting myself through my work. It’s a such a pleasure to be away from myself, my thoughts, my mind. This book was different because there was much chaos in my life during the writing of it: the city sewer system rerouted into my basement; I cleaned up my hundred-year old house and sold it; I moved into a new apartment; and I ghost-wrote a memoir that’s coming out in the fall. The copy edits for Lexie came in around the same time the memoir was due. I was working 18 hour days. But I kind of like that because, as I said, I like getting away from myself.
I love your characters! Can you talk about how you develop them—and how sometimes they turn out in ways you just didn’t expect?
Lexie is essentially me. Well, a taller, prettier, blond me. From a more messed-up family. But the way she thinks and how she thinks are versions of me. I haven’t made any of the disastrous choices she makes in the book (knock wood!), but I’ve certainly made many poor choices and I’ve certainly thought of doing the things she does. Dot, the 82 year old woman, is a version of my daughter, Maddie. It’s how I imagine my tap-dancing, straight-shooting, utterly un-vain daughter will be like as an old woman. Daniel, the guy Lexie falls in love with is based on men I’ve met—he’s constructed out of many different men, but I had a very fixed idea of who he was and what he was like. Physically, I was thinking of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. Wearing a Rolex, or whatever is even more expensive than a Rolex, and a custom-made suit. Amy, Lexie’s best friend, is a composite of all my best girlfriends: someone who's open about past mistakes, self aware, non-judgmental and accepting. The kind of friend we all need. Janet, the uptight, rule-following, sporty woman . . . well, you know her, right? Every school has someone like her. Someone who lives for the school, wears the school colors, goes to away games, is frugal as anything, but will leave the millions she's hoarded over a lifetime to the school when she dies.
I love how live-wire funny your novels are—and how live-wire funny you are in person. And I know how hard it is to write funny—at least for me. Is it for you?
I don’t really have a sense of myself as funny, but that seems to be the thing readers and critics always say. I certainly don't try to be funny. Although sometimes I’ll read over something I’ve written and I’ll crack myself up. I’m not sure if those things that make me laugh when I’m working on them are the things that make other people laugh. With my first book, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, when I read the loss of virginity scene for the first time I was utterly stunned that people were cracking up. I honestly had no idea it was funny. That scene, in particular, was written exactly as things had gone down for me (I threw up in the middle of losing my virginity on a beach with my surfer boyfriend) and I knew it wasn’t particularly sweet or romantic, but didn’t realize it was funny until I read it aloud to an audience.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Oh, Caroline, man, you don’t even want to know what’s obsessing me! Okay, maybe you do because you asked. Right now I’m obsessing over face yoga. I essentially slap, pinch, pucker and contort my face in a pathetic attempt to stave off wrinkles. I don’t want to do Botox or injections or anything that might make my face look like a rubber mask. But I also don’t want to shrivel up like an apple doll. It’s pathetic that I think about this stuff. I’m embarrassed, But, what can I say, it’s the truth. I do it mostly in the car, at red lights and stop signs. As soon as I press on the brake, my fingers go crazy on my face. I try to position my car so the person beside me doesn’t have to witness this. Today I forgot and this blond, beardy guy looked over at me smiling and gave me a peach sign. I think he felt sorry for me.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Maybe you should ask how and why I could be so shallow and vain as to obsess about face yoga when there is so much cruelty and unfairness in the world. The answer is this, in spite of the fact that as soon as I finish typing this, I'm gong to slap the underside of my chin thirty times, I really am trying to be less selfish and more aware. I do want to be a better citizen of the world more than I want a face as smooth as my giant bottom.
Friday, June 24, 2016
Leora Skolkin-Smith is the critically acclaimed author of Edges (optioned for film and selected by Grace Paley for Glad Day Books), Hystera and the upcoming Stealing Faith, which she'll read from tonight.
Terin Tashi Miller spent many of his formative years in India, the child of anthropologist parents. Since then, he has lived and worked in a variety of countries in Europe and Asia.http://terin-miller-ohpd.squarespace.com/the-other-country/His writing has appeared in guide books, international magazines including Time and Geografica Revista, and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News and The Los Angeles Times.
He began his writing career as a part-time reporter for Time magazine, then worked for The Associated Press in India and North Dakota and AP-Dow Jones News Services in Spain and New York, and as a reporter for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Amarillo Daily News and the Hilton Head Island Packet.
I'm so happy to post their KGB event and to have Terin and Leora answer some questions.
Let's ask Leora, first:
What made you want to write about Grace Paley, as a fictionalized character.
I had a very long-term relationship with Grace Paley. When she died, there was a a non-stop set of tributes that made her seem too idealized to be a real person anymore and I was very shaken. There were many falsehoods written about her and people claimed political sentiments she never had, using hr for their own political ends. She was a mother and mentor to me and she was the first publisher of my novels, publishing me herself in 005. I owed history and her a truthful, complex portrait. It quelled my rage at what had been said falsely and made me feel as if I had fulfilled a tremendous debt.
The background of your noel is the sexual revolution and early feminism of the 1970’s. Is there anything you’d like to say about this era?
Just how revelatory in the right of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as the first woman it was to go back to the days of Ms. magazine and Sisterhood is Powerhood. A fascinating journey back in time for me.
Now, we turn to Terin:
You have a book launch coming up, right?
Yes. Friday (today) at 7 p.m.-9 p.m. at KGB Bar--an ambition I've had ever since seeing friend and fellow transplanted midwesterner Mark Wisniewski read from Show Up, Look Good and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler read from his novel Small Hotel there.
Tell us About The Other Country.
It's the last piece in a trilogy of books I set in India, narrated by the same character, a journalist named John Colson. The Other Country is his fictional memoir as he's become a father to a son. And his reflecting on his own childhood in India and Wisconsin, and juxtaposing his experiences as a civilian in India's last officially declared war with its brother, Pakistan, with witnessing the Mujahideen war against the Soviets and 9/11 as a journalist. And his fear for the future of all children.
So, is "The Other Country" India?
If you like. Or Pakistan. Or Afghanistan. Or the U.S. Or the past in relation to the present or future.
What are the other two books in the trilogy, and how did all this writing about India come about?
Well, the first book in the trilogy, Kashi, I first got as far as the semi-finals in the first, I think it was Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. I won a self-publishing deal and self-published as From Where the Rivers Come. It won a fair number of awards and recognition for a self-published book. An Indian publisher asked me to revise it, and I did, and they published it as Kashi. The second book, Down the Low Road, I published myself. And a new Indian publisher published The Other Country.
I lived there as a kid, visited and worked there, in Varanasi, as a language student and journalist, and have never really been able to shake the desire to write about it, modern India, not the romanticised British Raj, and not as an expatriated or second generation Indian living the immigrant experience.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Hollywood glamour, family secrets, and an obsession with celebrity: New York Times besstselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore talks about her extraordinary new novel, JUNE
I can't think of a better way to spend a gorgeous NYC spring day than walking through Central Park and talking with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Not only is she smart, funny, and a terrifically talented writer, but she's also the kind of person who really listens, gives expert advice, and best of all--she's about to have a baby! (I admit it, I love babies and kids.)
She's the author of The Effects of Light, (soon to be a film), Set Me Free, The New York Times Bestseller, Bittersweet, and now, June, which is already racking up the raves. Take a look:
PopSugar picks June as one of The 31 Books You MUST Put In Your Beachbag This Summer!
Library Journal writes, “The past is not all glossy nostalgia; Beverly-Whittemore illuminates the conflicts roiling under a smooth, socially acceptable surface… Fans of Hollywood, then and now, will find this dramatic story line appealing.”
Shelf Awareness calls June “an enthralling story of Hollywood glamour, first love and shifting loyalties”
Publishers Weekly says June “explores the changing possibilities for women, the evolution of the Hollywood fame machine, and love’s potential for genuine human transformation.”
Booklist says June is “an appealing story of romance and suspense with a focus on love and legacy.”
Kirkus calls June “A lightly gothic tale of hearts broken and mended in small-town America.”
I'm so thrilled to have Miranda here. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I love the whole idea of old Hollywood glamour and I bet the research was a hoot. How did you research this? What surprised you about the research (or better yet, disturbed you?)
I’ve long been obsessed with celebrity. Maybe as a little girl I wanted to be rich and famous (one of my first memories is oohhhing and ahhhing over Princess Diana’s wedding on a newsreel, projected on a bed sheet in the backyard of the British Embassy in Dakar, Senegal), but I quickly realized how unpleasant so many aspects of that life are, and the whole idea of being watched all the time still terrifies me.
Then, after my first novel came out, I was a co-producer on a short adaptation of that book to film, and had my first experience on a real Hollywood set. It was enchanting to watch the well-oiled machine that filmmaking is (especially as a writer who spends most of my time as a maker completely by myself) —everyone has their specific job, and when all those jobs are fitted together, the whole thing works. I realized I wanted to write not just about celebrity, but about a film set, and I thought there was no better witness to such a place than a child who gets to be a part of it.
In June, there are two generations of celebrities—in the modern day, two sisters, one an A-lister a la Jennifer Aniston, and the other a character based on Carrie Fisher; at the beginning of the book, you discover they’re the daughters of the movie star who is the celebrity in the book’s 1955, a matinee idol named Jack Montgomery. Having a family of movie stars across sixty years gave me the opportunity play with the difference between being a celebrity now and then; my perception being that you could get away with a lot more then than you can now (but you also had a lot less power then, especially if you were female).
The truth is, I went into writing this book without knowing much at all about the Hollywood system in the fifties, which meant I bought a lot of books on Amazon, which acted as life rafts when I found myself terrified if I was allowed to write about something of which I knew so little. A good friend of mine who works for TCM suggested that I might want to look at the legendary film Raintree County as inspiration for the film Jack comes to town to make, which was enormously helpful, and from which I borrowed so many ideas, including that prior to my book’s opening, the crew has already filmed a month of interiors on an LA soundstage; they’ve come to this small Ohio town to film the exteriors. But I’ll confess that I’ve never seen Raintree County; I really wanted to let the film in my book stand on its own, without being hampered by too much research, which I definitely see as a danger, because I get obsessed with what actually happened and that can often mean I hamper my own imagination.
June is so expertly plotted, almost like nesting Russian dolls, with one secret uncovering another. So, from a purely practical standpoint, how did you do this? I know you use story structure (Trubyites!) but can you also tell me what else you did?
Thanks so much! Much like my last novel, Bittersweet, June has a really twisting plot, full of surprises, which is my favorite kind of book to read. Like you, I’m a huge fan of using Truby’s Anatomy of Story to outline a book, which takes a lot of time upfront but usually means that when it comes to it, I write the actual book relatively quickly (I wrote most of June in a five month period last spring). I think writing quickly from an outline has a lot to do with plotting in that page-turny way, because I find one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is keeping the whole book in my head at any given time, and writing quickly at least keeps the ideas fresh in my mind.
Once I wrote the book, I took a month-long break from it (while my editor read it) before diving back into the book for a six-week revision in which a LOT changed, including that June had been originally written entirely in first person (it’s now in third). Again, I think doing this revision quickly (six weeks of twelve hour days), although hellish at the time, was the only way I could hold onto all the strands of secrets spinning through the book. I was so lucky to be taken so well care of by my family during that time, who fed and cheered me, and entertained my kid.
It’s funny to realize that as soon as we make story out of anything—every fact—it becomes fictionalized, both because of memory and because how he look at things changes as we change. In June, there are so many secrets and so many memories, that I wanted to know: do you think we can ever really know the real truth about anyone and anything? How close do you think we can get?
That was another starting point for this book. I wanted to write about legacy—from both a cultural and familial viewpoint, because I thought there was a nice parallel to draw between the stories we tell ourselves about our celebrities and the stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors. Both groups of people are revered in mythic ways, almost godlike in our telling of them. But of course they are/were just people, like us, making all sorts of mistakes, lusting, striving, stumbling along the way. I wanted this book to uncover what really happened/s when that layer of time or celebrity is peeled back, and we’re left with the people at the heart of that matter. That’s when life gets interesting, and I believe that almost everyone in my book comes to understand that at the end.
The past impacts the present—from 1955 to 2015. Was writing one time period more fun than another for you? Why or why not?
This is the first time I’ve attempted an historical novel, and I was really scared to do it. But I had some tricks up my sleeve, which I thought of as short cuts, because the two different time periods in this book seemed much more incidental than the plot, if that makes sense. First of all, the small Ohio town where this book is set is based on the real town where my grandmother grew up, and that town has not changed much since the 1800’s, so once I knew that town well, I knew I could write about it at any time period, really. Then I sat down with my parents and a few other friends who’d been children in 1955 and asked them to just brainstorm brands of food, and what their mothers wore, and what they did on Saturday afternoons, and a huge amount of that knowledge went into this book. Finally, although the book is called June, and in the past era, there is a very important character named June, I always knew that the true main character of that storyline is a scrappy tomboy named Lindie, and she was always very accessible to me. I felt safe with her, and I knew that her presence meant I didn’t need to be as scared of writing about 1955 as I might otherwise have been.
I suppose that makes it sounds as though the 1955 section is my favorite, but the truth is I had a total blast writing the present-day section as well. The two modern actresses in that time-period, especially the irreverent Elda (the one based on Carrie Fisher), were so much fun to write. And Cassie, whose the main character in the present day, is so lost at the beginning of the book; it was really fun to help her find home again.
Both June and Lindie are incredible characters, which makes me want to know how did you go about creating them?
As I said above, Lindie just kind of came to me fully formed. She was always queer, stuck in this small town in the fifties in which queerness as a notion didn’t even exist; I realized that her journey would include coming to terms with this fundamental truth about herself, even embracing it, at a time when that would have been very hard to do. Her love for June sometimes puzzled me, because June is a bit of a prickly pear; she’s not the person I’d be in love with. But June’s character is consistent throughout—she’s the person who doesn’t leave a small town, but decides to stay there, to embrace that life—and it was really fun to illustrate this fundamental aspect of her character both through Lindie’s eyes, when June is only 18, and then through June’s granddaughter Cassie’s eyes, after June has died as an old woman. I suppose there are aspects of my maternal grandmother in June, who was a big believer in privacy, which is something not many of us value anymore. For both Cassie and Lindie, this part of June is hard to decipher, even, at times, to like, but it is fundamental to who she is, and informs every big decision she makes in the book (especially the surprising ones).
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I will confess that I just got completely obsessed with organizing my seven year old’s lego collection, much of which he inherited from a teenager next door. I did all this crazy research online about which kind of drawer system is the best for loose lego pieces, and settled upon the Akro-Mils kind, and proceeded to spend three very obsessive days sorting pieces by size (not color) into tiny little drawers. Yes, I know he will quickly dismantle this, but dammit, my book’s about to come out and I’m six months pregnant, so a little procrastination/nesting never hurt anyone, right? Right???
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Oh Caroline, you always ask the best questions, and I’m always happy to answer them! What I want to ask you is when you will meet me for teatime again, only this time, let’s skip Alice’s Tea Cup and go somewhere where they will let you have coffee.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
How does a brilliant, critically acclaimed novelist add to her illustrious career? With a brilliant, critically acclaimed YA. Jennifer Gilmore talks about her haunting YA debut, WE WERE NEVER HERE, writing, and so much more
First, just some of the advance praise of Jennifer Gilmore's gorgeous YA debut, WE WERE NEVER HERE:
"Both painful..and mesmerizing."–Publishers Weekly, Starred review
“Sensitive and insightful."
“Heartwarming, heartbreaking, tender, and true.”
–Deb Caletti, National Book Award Finalist for Honey, Baby, Sweetheart
“A powerful, graceful, and poignantly beautiful story. I cannot overstate how much I loved this book.”
–Courtney Sheinmel, author of Edgewater and Positively
“This poignant, sharply-observed novel of invisible illness also reminds us of the redemptive power of love and community.”
–Adele Griffin, author of The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone
Jennifer Gilmore is one of my favorite people on the earth. Not only is she warm, smart and funny, but she's also a brilliant novelist, both for adults--and now, in her YA debut-- for teens. She's the author of the highly acclaimed The Mothers (being adapted for film), Something Red, (a New York Times Notable Book) and Golden Country, a New York Times Notable Book of 2006, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, on the long-list for the International IMPAC Dublin Prize, a finalist for the Harold U Ribalow Prize, and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
I'm so happy to have her here. Thank you so much, Jennifer!
You’re a critically acclaimed adult novelist. What made you decide to write a YA?
I got a call from a YA publisher after she’d read my second adult novel, Something Red. She said, You do 16 really well, you should write YA. I started something and then put it aside for my last adult novel and then I decided to go back to it. I decided I had a story to tell that was best suited for teens. Or more, it was something I wish I’d had to read when I was a teen and reading mattered so much to me.
Was there a different in writing YA rather than adult novels? Did you miss anything? Did anything surprise you in it?
There is an idea in YA that your protagonist is in the moment and moving forward only. It’s hard to think about the future and hard to think about the past. I think that’s accurate for most teens, actually. The future is hard for any of my characters to imagine. But I have to say, I was a kid who, at 8, was like: oh my God it was so much better when I was 7, so I think there is leeway there. I think teens have memories and nostalgia for things that are gone and they have all kinds of hopes and dreams. As much as I missed writing about the past as I usually do, I was surprised how much a forward moving narrative taught me as a writer. You can learn when your protagonist does. You don’t have to know everything already. That was sort of wonderful.
Every novel seems to spark from something that haunted the writer. What sparked you to write this?
That’s very true. I was quite sick in my twenties. What happened to me haunted and invigorated me, like our past always does. I wanted it to take place fictionally though in a time when it would be most shocking. Being sick as a young person is a strange thing, but when you are 16, as Lizzie is here, and you’re not yet comfortable in your skin, that’s a terrible thing. So what if your illness is what, in the end, gives you the power to actually be yourself? I wanted to look at that. How you get power out of being powerless.
I have to ask about the title, which I love with a passion. Can you talk about that please?
Titles are difficult. I’m so glad you like it! I was thinking about Lizzie wishing this time in her life had never happened. But if it had never happened then the wonderful things that came out of that experience—falling in love, making friends, becoming open to life, really—wouldn’t have happened either. She only realizes this later. For a long time she wishes none of it had happened, and the boy she meets has his own secrets , a past he wishes he had not been present for as well.
Illness, especially long-term or chronic, is like being in another country where you don’t know the language, and you captured it absolutely perfectly. What was it like to write about?
Writing about being sick comes very naturally to me. I’ve written a lot of non-fiction on the topic that helped me arrive here fictionally. I like to think of the hospital as an alternative universe. I like to think writing about illness is like writing sci fi: here are the new rules, here is the language, here is the map. In a sense, writing gives you a do-over. I don’t believe writing is therapy in any way (how many happy writers do you see running around, especially fiction writers?) but I think I got to relive it and do it better this time. My character asks for help and gets help from her family. I don’t think that’s how it was for me. I was very private and ashamed. I wanted to undo that. I have tried to undo that.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I am swamped with teaching and domestic life and those concerns are foregrounded right now. I look forward to swaths of time. I think I am obsessed with swaths of time to think something through in earnest. I’m working on a new YA called If Only. It’s all about alternative futures, what we could have been if just one thing was different. That has always obsessed me. All the things I left behind…
“A haunting, visceral novel that heralds the birth of a powerful new voice in American fiction.” Starred Kirkus Review
Deón’s powerful debut is a moving, mystical family saga set over the course of 25 years in the deep South.
Starred Publishers Weekly
Natashia Deón is one of the kindest, most generous writers I know. An attorney, writer, law professor, and creator of the popular L.A.-based reading series Dirty Laundry Lit, Deón was recently named one of L.A.'s "Most Fascinating People" by L.A. Weekly. I was introduced to her by the novelist Gina Sorell (Mothers And Other Strangers, coming May 2017 from Prospect Park Books) when I was desperate for research help on the law. Natashia literally saved my life--and she gave me more than I could have ever hoped for. Of course, I adore her. But more than that, she's a brilliant writer, and Grace is like a punch to the heart (in the best way, of course.) She's the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices fellowship and her debut novel, Grace, is due out June 2016 with Counterpoint Press.
I'm so thrilled to have Natashia here. Thank you, thank you for everything, Natashia.
Grace is totally extraordinary. What sparked the writing of this book about a runaway slave?
A dream. When my son was born, he was sick. Within a few days, I knew something was wrong. I had just had my daughter the year before and when he didn’t behave the way she did, I became afraid for his life. It turns out that he had a rare genetic condition that affected his brain and body but doctors didn’t know that yet. I didn’t know. I only had a discomfort and fear. And during his first month, while I was walking down the hallway with him, I had a daydream, and in it I saw a pregnant slave girl and she was running for her life through the dark. I wrote what I saw and GRACE began.
It blossomed a few months later when I knew that I wanted to feature a cast of multi-ethnic women. That’s what I cared about in my version of the Civil War—America’s rich history that is multi-ethnic and complicated. And I wanted to explore the war while inside feminine brown skin, like mine.
I’m always curious about research, how a writer goes about, what you learned and what surprised you. You’ve captured generations. Care to talk about this?
When my parents left Alabama for California in the 70s, they packed lunches, drove during the day and slept on the side of the road at night. My parents were the first in their family to leave the south since the end of American slavery. And even as a child, I wondered, why didn’t they leave before? It was, after all, the site of the crimes.
There are a lot of private and personal answers to that. But I was mostly surprised at the answers that were in plain sight. I was taught about slavery like everyone else in an American public school and like many people, I hadn’t connected the dots. For example, how 3 million slaves were set free with the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the Civil War. Not after the war in a time of peace, or before the war started. And, how the Underground Railroad, which I grew up believing was a monumental savior to slaves only went as far south as Virginia. I wanted to explore that.
How do you do all that you do? You’re a practicing lawyer, and you run a lit series, and you teach law AND you write genius novels. How do you manage the time crunch?
God. I think He divides times for me. (smiling) As for my part, I let myself miss things. I used to try to cross everything off of my To Do list everyday, but after my first child was born and I found myself sitting in the corner, in the dark, completely overwhelmed, it occurred to me that I can miss things. That sometimes, my best intentions are not possible.
Now, I see my To Do list as a goal sheet and give myself a high-five on the days I do it all and if I don’t, I tell myself, “Good try. Or, you blew it today.” But no matter what, tomorrows will come. Except after my last.
One of the things I found so overwhelming in the novel is that when the slaves were freed, they were not really free—and in many ways, things became worse for them. (There is the line, “I don't know what’s worse. Living in fear or dying.” Can you talk about this please?)
In Grace, I wanted to explore what it means to be free today, not just for a slave or in the 1800s, but today—both physical and mental bondage. Freedom is not a cure, it’s an event, a beginning that marks the end of some state of bondage—a marriage, a job, whatever. And I believe that after childhood, fear plays a major role in freedom. Even as a law professor who teaches Constitutional law, I encourage my students to explore freedom and the role fear plays in it. And how almost any defense, or loss of freedom can be rationalized with that emotion. Even death—for the person who’s feared, or for ourselves to end our own fear and anxiety. I don’t advocate either.
But Grace is primarily a story of love, and yes, freedom, and motherhood. I wanted to show this slave-narrator as thinking and wanting and loving, the way all women do, today or in the 1800s or thousands of years ago. I wanted her thoughts to take her beyond the single-mindedness of freedom north—but that’s part of it—that’s the beginning I was talking about. I wanted her to be like we all are, asking ourselves if what we have right now is freedom?
The relationship between Josie and Naomi is astonishing—Naomi’s love affair with a white man produced Josie, who is mixed race and looks white. Both have different experiences of American racism, and of love, and of the bond between mother and daughter. And today, there is still horrific racism going on. Do you think there will ever be an end to this?
I have hope. I believe that the generations that are coming behind us can end this. Racism is a choice. I have faith that with more voices, louder voices, united voices, the absurdity of this manmade system of racism will speak for itself and the next generations will chose different than us, from our parents, grandparents and so on. And with educated and intentional advocates of all backgrounds, the change will be a system-wide overhaul that includes education, prisons, wealth, and health. Maybe it won’t happen as quickly as I hope, but I believe. I believe in Americans.
I loved the language of the novel, which brings me to the question—How do you write? Do you outline? Do you just follow your Muse?
Thanks so much, Caroline. I love language. In this novel, I wanted to explore dialect and the way we attribute language to intelligence. I wanted to show that language is a matter of exposure and utility, not necessarily intelligence. My struggle in writing this novel was to have my protagonist express herself as an intelligent human being without having all of the words. I failed her once or twice.
As far as how I write, I write as thoughts occur to me, or as events happen. One part usually leads to the next logical thought. Unless I’m PMS’ing. Ha!
But I outlined this novel and wrote it first as a screenplay. It won several screenwriting awards but at one point I decided that I needed to finish this story. If it remained a screenplay, it would need directors to bring the complete story to fruition—a director of the film, of photography, sound effects, lighting, actors, etc. And at the table when I was negotiating the option for the screenplay—this incomplete story—I realized that I needed to complete it. And oh, what a journey it’s been.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
My faith as a Christian and what it means to love all people. More specifically, how can I love all people genuinely and without judgment. The political climate has gotten me to think more and more about who I am and what I believe. I was forced to look at my beliefs and my Cliff Notes version of Jesus and say, wait a minute.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You’ve done a great job. Thank you!